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Film Review: “Just Mercy”

Mitchell Shaughnessy

Film Reviewer

Director Destin Daniel Cretin presents audiences with an authentic, emotional, and heart-wrenching story with his latest film: “Just Mercy” (2019). The picture utilizes a compelling, well-rounded cast consisting of many talents, such as Michael B. Jordan, Jaimie Foxx, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, and Brie Larson. The film’s melancholy narrative gives audiences a bleak, reality-based outlook on the issue of systemic racism, and how the death penalty is so grossly misused by a country that’s supposed to be extremely adamant for the values of liberty and justice for all.

“Just Mercy” places moviegoers into the shoes of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan). Bryan is a young, ambitious, and Harvard-educated attorney of law, who takes it upon himself to travel to the Deep South to clear the name of Walter “Johnny D.” Macmillan (Jaimie Foxx): an African-American man mistakenly implicated with the murder of a white Alabama woman. Despite overwhelming evidence of foul play, Johnny is unanimously labeled as the woman’s killer, resulting in him securing a seat on death row.

The story is somewhat of a slow burner, and if one does not appreciate long build-ups for the sake of the plot, the movie may, at times, be challenging to get through. The story, while rooted in factual events, may also come off as formulaic or predictable, as it very carefully draws parallels to narratives like “To Kill a Mocking Bird.” However, at the same time, the tale is particularly disturbing in the sense that McMillian had been subject to scrutiny for seven years: the crime occurred in November of 1986, Macmillan got falsely convicted in 1988, and he did not get exonerated until 1993. It is astonishing how mishandled this situation initially was. Sadly, perjury and false accusations like what appears in the film are not uncommon occurrences. The movie, in the ending credits, states that one person is always exonerated and released out of every nine people receiving an execution in the United States. Thankfully, in a valiant effort to combat this shocking statistic, Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, has worked to free over 140 inmates from being falsely subjected to the clutches of the death penalty.

In spite of the film’s controversial and uncomfortable subject matter, Cretin does a stellar job of investing the audience into the intricacies of the story, resulting in a movie that makes the viewer feel guilty for not acting or doing anything about the plethora of injustices presented throughout the film’s runtime. This feeling is enhanced when considering how well-casted everyone is. There isn’t one single bad performance, which is a telltale sign of great writing and excellent direction. Michael B. Jordan and Jaimie Foxx are easily the best aspects of the movie, as both actors try at maximum effort to deliver outstanding, realistic, and memorable performances. Foxx and Jordan will undoubtedly leave the viewer craving more from them in the future.

The story on display for the audience is a factual one, and despite some creative liberties exhibiting themselves for the sake of narrative purposes (e.g., the condensing of the timeline for Walter Macmillan’s case), the movie is still respectful of the real-life material that inspired it. It’s a real treat to see two powerhouse performers gracefully act alongside each other while depicting a heart-wrenching story with top-notch content that accurately recreates a landmark moment in civil rights. Foxx legitimately comes off as a man who has seen the ugliness and corruption that has encroached upon the justice system of the United States. He is a man who, in an unwarranted fashion, fell victim to bias, prejudice, or racial injustice, and the audience gets an immense sense of this feeling throughout the full two hours and seventeen minutes.

         Moreover, Michael B. Jordan does a terrific job portraying the calm and collected Bryan Stevenson. He remains smooth and patient even when encountering insulting instances of racial disparities. A notable example is on display when white correctional guards force him to undergo a strip search in prison because they have a hard time believing a black man can be an attorney who got their education from attending an ivy league university. Eventually, the audience does witness Stevenson grow overtly emotional and lose it. Still, when he does it’s warranted, and the collected and well-handled demeanor that Jordan consistently lends to Stevenson shines immensely alongside the terrific acting and engaging dialogue.

“Just Mercy” is spectacular in the sense that it successfully shows off a compelling story that has its roots in real-life events. The narrative does not stray far at all in terms of historical accuracy. It is an excellent movie with a powerful message backing it for added depth and cultural value. It is a legal drama that ensures the audience is interested in every turn of event. I found myself becoming very emotionally invested in the strategies Stevenson utilized to provide his clientele with the mercy that they deserve, regardless of whether he is successful in those endeavors or not. Overall, with solid writing, fantastic performances, relevant philosophical inquiries, and the added effect of the story portraying a tragic, emotional, real-life event, “Just Mercy” does a stellar job. For me, these factors alone land it a rating of 9/10. Go check it out if you haven’t already!